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The Spear

Storytelling Podcasts

The Spear is a podcast from the Modern War Institute at West Point. It sets out to explore the combat experience, with each episode featuring a guest who tells a detailed and personal story, describing the events and exploring topics like decision-making under stress and what it feels like to be in combat.


United States


The Spear is a podcast from the Modern War Institute at West Point. It sets out to explore the combat experience, with each episode featuring a guest who tells a detailed and personal story, describing the events and exploring topics like decision-making under stress and what it feels like to be in combat.




Three Missions in Panjwai District

This episode features a conversation with Ryan Hendrickson. After almost losing his leg in an IED blast in 2010, he was back in Afghanistan just eighteen months later. He shares the stories of three missions from that first deployment back, when he was testing his body physically and working to prove that he was ready to be back at the tip of the spear, on a US Army Special Forces team.


A Lieutenant's Dilemma

Before his NFL career, Alejandro Villanueva was a rifle platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division. During a deployment to an especially restive sector near Kandahar, Afghanistan, his unit faced heightened security challenges due to a prison break that freed a large number of Taliban fighters. But Villanueva also had to contend with a unique dilemma: after a member of the Afghan National Police accompanying his platoon opened fire on an approaching motorcycle, they lost sight of the driver. The potential that this was a civilian casualty led Villanueva's brigade headquarters to task his soldiers with determining what happened. The task was made much more challenging when Taliban radio communications indicating they were planning to attack the Americans along one of the most dangerous wadis in the area: Route Mariners. He joins this episode to share the story.


Moral Courage

Rick Jackson enlisted in the Marine Corps in the 1980s, later attending Officer Candidates School and commissioning as an infantry officer. He joins this episode to reflect on a career that spanned nearly three and a half decades. He shares one story in particular, from a deployment to Iraq’s restive Anbar province, which included what he describes as one of his lowest days in the Marine Corps. Listen as he describes what he learned from that experience about the essence of leadership and what it means to be a Marine.


Surprise Ambush in Nuristan

In 2008, Major Corey Faison was a scout platoon leader at Combat Outpost Lowell in Afghanistan's Nuristan province. The area was a hotbed of Taliban activity and the company at the COP found itself frequently under attack. Faison’s platoon planned to conduct an ambush aimed at killing or capturing a high-value target transiting the area. But while climbing the rugged, mountainous terrain en route to the designated ambush site, Faison and his soldiers found themselves being ambushed instead.


Objective Reindeer

In June 2003, almost three months after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment was given a mission. A training camp of foreign fighters near the Syrian border in western Iraq had been identified. The camp, given the name Objective Reindeer, was situated in a wadi—a depression in the desert. The company commander's scheme of maneuver called for part of the force to infiltrate by ground while the remainder arrived at the objective on aircraft. One of the Rangers on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was Josh Richardson, the company's fire support officer. As soon as they approached the wadi, the aircraft began taking fire. He joins this episode to share the story of the fight the unfolded next.


MQ-9 Reaper in Eastern Afghanistan

This episode of The Spear features a story from US Air Force Major Joe Ritter. An RPA pilot, his story takes place both at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where he and his sensor operator, Dylan, were located, and in Afghanistan's Kunar province, where thhey were flying an MQ-9 Reaper during an intelligence collection mission. When an unusual event catches his eye, Joe realizes his MQ-9 Reaper may have found something other than what they were looking for.


In the Skies above Anbar

In 2007, United States Marine Captain Kyleanne Hunter was flying escort missions above Marines operating in western Iraq. When the Marines on the ground discovered a massive weapons cache—and a large group of armed insurgents protecting it—she found herself in a situation that challenged her as a pilot and changed the way she and her fellow Marines flew in Anbar province. This episode also marks the first with Tim Heck, MWI’s deputy editorial director, as host.


Paktika's Ambush Alley

In 2003, Dave Rittgers was in command of a Special Forces team deployed to Afghanistan. Partway through its tour, the team moved to a firebase in Orgun-E to undertake a new mission—helping to mitigate the threat of Taliban ambushes in an area where they were so frequent it earned the nickname "ambush alley." Lt. Col. Rittgers joins this episode to share the story of one of those ambushes.


Apaches Adapting Under Fire

During a deployment in Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dylan Ferguson was flying an Apache, providing close air support to a special operations ground force below. When his aircraft's 30-millimeter cannon failed and there wasn't space to get the standoff distance required to fire Hellfire missiles, he and his copilot changed tactics—flying in low over enemy fighters to bait them into opening fire on their helicopter, so the other Apache flying with them could identify the enemy location and target it. He shares the story in this episode.


SEALs in Iraq

In 2010, Rick Witt was a new SEAL team commander preparing his unit to deploy to Iraq when one of his subordinate platoons encountered leadership and cohesion problems. Faced with the hard choice of replacing the platoon commander, Witt made that change, which likely had direct consequences when that platoon found itself engaged in a firefight and taking casualties. Witt watched this chain of events unfold from his command post knowing the decisions he made prior to deployment and that day impacted the situation on the ground.


Across the Fence

Arriving in Vietnam in April 1968, John “Tilt” Meyer volunteered for a highly classified unit without knowing so much as its name. Tilt, it turned out, was volunteering to join Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), which ran highly classified special operations missions deep into North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. On one of Tilt’s first missions, an area reconnaissance of an important North Vietnamese Army site in Laos, his small team was quickly discovered. A harrowing firefight followed. Later, with only a few months' experience, he became the team leader, taking the responsibility on his shoulders for the decisions made in the jungle.


An Information War with Guns

Infantry battalions operating tactically rarely have the possibility to directly impact alliance constructs, foreign policy objectives, and national security strategy. But Dan Leard’s 1-38 Infantry did. As a battalion commander, he deployed with his soldiers to support coalition operations in Syria in 2021. He joins this episode to describe that deployment, during which his battalion encountered Russian patrols, Iranian-backed influence operations, and persistent surveillance. It was an environment where one misstep could lead to strategic shifts.


The Leader and the Damage Done

"Trust your NCOs" is common advice given to every new lieutenant. This adage, the overwhelming majority of the time, is valid. But when it’s not, it’s not. When Chris Liggett was a lieutenant, he deployed to Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division. His weapons squad leader was fit, aggressive, capable, and confident—and his hard work earned him Liggett's trust. So when his platoon was given responsibility for gate security at Forward Operating Base Fenty—an unglamorous but vital job—it was a natural decision to place the weapons squad leader in charge of the night shift. It was a mistake, Liggett later learned, with serious consequences.


Leading with Love

In 1995, Robert Craven was a teenage high school dropout with a baby on the way. Looking for options to improve his life, he turned to the Army and embraced its “be all you can be” motto as his own. Years later, as the senior platoon sergeant in a HIMARS battery deployed to Afghanistan, Craven found himself having to replace the rotating first sergeant while simultaneously addressing a command climate in another platoon that risked mission success. Now the command sergeant major for the United States Corps of Cadets at West Point, Craven shares his hard-earned wisdom and reflects on what it means to lead with love.


History of the World War (Part II)

Before legendary entertainer Mel Brooks was known as Mel Brooks, he was Corporal Melvin Kaminsky, a combat engineer fighting in Europe during World War II. From facing air raids to artillery rounds bursting in the trees to demining toilets and pickle jars, Mel Brooks witnessed large-scale combat operations from the ground. In this episode of The Spear, Mel shares stories of his training, deployment, combat, and the end of the war in Europe. He also talks about the role entertainment played in returning to some sense of normalcy after VE Day.


Smiling When It Sucks

In 2003, Dan Stuewe was a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division preparing to cross into Iraq. With only a few weeks with his platoon, Stuewe deployed forward, convinced he’d never see his new wife again. On the day the unit deployed, a soldier handed him some chewing tobacco and a valuable lesson: smiling changes everything. After air assault missions as the unit moved toward Baghdad, Stuewe's soldiers provided him the valuable reminder to smile when times got tough. Combat in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad, and Mosul all proved the wisdom of smiling when it sucks.


Calling in Close Air Support

In this episode of The Spear, retired Marine officer David Berke joins to share a story from 2006, when he was a forward air controller attached to an Army unit in Ramadi, Iraq. During a movement-to-contact patrol, they began to take fire, and his job became especially important. He declared the TIC—troops in contact—and two Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornets headed their way to provide close air support. Listen as he tells the story, explaining what it's like to work with the pilots in the air to engage the enemy in support of the ground force.


When the Wall Fell

As a new military police platoon leader, Robin Fontes unexpectedly found herself present at a turning point of strategic significance. Assigned to the Berlin Brigade, Fontes and her soldiers were part of the American effort to maintain an outpost in the German capital, keep tabs on the Soviets, and stay ready for the start of World War III—all while citizens across Eastern Europe were increasingly demanding additional freedoms and political representation from their communist governments. As tensions inside East Germany continued to rise, Fontes had a front-row view. When the Berlin Wall came down in October 1989, she found herself thrust into a delicate balancing act in the midst of geostrategic uncertainty in a profoundly historic moment.


Battle of Barawala Kalay Valley

In 2010 Kevin Mott's unit arrived in Afghanistan's Kunar province for a deployment that would see months of hard fighting. At one point, he was even wounded so badly—shot in the head, four fractured vertebrae, a broken leg, a torn labrum—that he was sent back to the United States for medical care. Several months later, he managed to be cleared to return to his unit in Afghanistan. After he did, the battalion conducted a mission aimed at clearing an area known to have a strong Taliban presence. Kevin shares the story of his platoon's heavy fighting as they worked their way toward their objective of Barawala Kalay.


Last Man Out

On August 30, 2021, Lieutenant General Chris Donahue stepped onto the ramp of the last American C-17 in Afghanistan and into the pages of history. At the time, he was the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, leading his paratroopers as the United States withdrew from Afghanistan after almost twenty years of combat. Now a corps commander, Donahue joins this episode of The Spear. He describes the evolving and complex mission on the ground during that 2021 deployment, during which he relied on trust and relationships to lead his troops and oversee the evacuation of more than 120,000 Afghans. He also reflects on his career and the leadership lessons he learned along the way, sharing advice for junior and aspiring leaders.